Archive for the ‘English’ Category

I recently bought two books on food history: Peter Brears’ Cooking & Dining in Medieval England and Hannele Klemettilä’s The Medieval Kitchen. Both are filled with fascinating information, illustrated with woodcuts, paintings, kitchen floor plans, menus, provender lists – and recipes, mostly from 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts, updated for modern cooks. Naturally, I had to try a few of those, even though I know that intellectual curiosity and palatal satisfaction don’t necessarily coincide.

???????????????????????????????For my first foray into the Middle Ages, I chose a pottage recipe from Brears’ book. An expert on both medieval history and medieval cookery, the man is clearly a pottage enthusiast. He calls it “one of the most interesting and varied forms of medieval English food.” Now, to the extent that I’d had any notion of what pottage was, I imagined it to be something like porridge – a sort of cereal mush. Wrong! Brears gives over 100 recipes for pottages, which can be based on meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, nuts, vegetables, or fruits, as well as cereals.

The nearest general term for those dishes today might be stew. The common factor is a liquid medium, usually broth or wine, with the main ingredients chopped small and often the addition of a thickening substance, such as oatmeal or breadcrumbs. A great variety of herbs and spices also appear in the recipes, many in combinations that are strange to the modern palate. That in fact was the most intriguing aspect of these dishes: how would those odd combinations actually taste?

The recipe I made, Mutton Hashed in Onion, Herb and Spiced Stock, is one of the simplest. The main reason I chose it is that it starts with lamb that has previously been roasted, and I had plenty of leftover lamb from my Easter dinner. The meat had to be chopped very fine (I used the food processor) and put into a pot with finely chopped onions, red wine, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, and saffron. A mere ten minutes of simmering, and it was ready to serve.



???????????????????????????????Brears writes a lot about exactly how food was served in medieval times. Pottages were brought to the table in large bowls, containing a spoon for each diner. He gives a drawing of one. The pottage was eaten directly from the common bowl. That’s why you see two spoons in the mess of pottage I made for Tom and me.


“A mess of pottage” is now a derogatory term, derived from the Old Testament story of how Esau sold his birthright for what English translators and commentators called a mess of pottage. (Evidently it was actually a lentil stew; see Genesis 25:30.) I’d always thought the negative connotation of that phrase came largely from the word “mess,” suggesting a sloppy heap of ill-mixed ingredients. Wrong again! Brears explains that, in medieval times, a “mess” was a group of people who regularly ate their meals together and were served with certain dishes to share. A mess of pottage was the quantity necessary to feed the group. (That sense of the term survives today in the military, where soldiers eat in messes, in company with their messmates.)

You may notice I haven’t rushed into saying how my pottage tasted. I cannot tell a lie: not great. It wasn’t awful. It was just moist, crumbled lamb with a mild, vaguely mideastern-tasting seasoning – probably the cinnamon and saffron speaking. Tom pronounced it boring, and I had to agree. We ate some of it, and I packed away the rest, thinking I may eventually try giving it some zip and using it in empanadas or calzones.

So, my first attempt at medieval cookery was not what one might call an outstanding success. You might say the mess was the message. Next week I’ll tell you about my second attempt.

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None of the new dishes I’ve tried lately seems to deserve a whole post of its own, so here’s a roundup of a few small culinary experiments.


No Trumpets for Crumpets

I’ll get “the Bad” over with first. Tom and I like English muffins a lot. One morning I had the idea that their cousins, Crumpets, which I’d never eaten, might be interesting to make for a breakfast, so I looked up the recipe in my Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

It calls for small metal flan rings to hold the crumpet batter in shape while it cooks on a griddle. Fortunately I had some, made from tunafish cans, which I use occasionally for making frittatine, miniature vegetable omelettes for antipasti. I dug them out and went to work. I made a yeast batter with flour, milk, egg, salt, sugar, and butter. While it was rising, I clarified more butter for brushing the griddle and the rings.

The batter rose ebulliently (it had a lot of yeast) and was extremely thick. As I spooned it into the rings on the hot griddle it only reluctantly spread out to fill them.

When bubbles appeared on the surface of the batter, the bottoms had browned, as the recipe promised, so I removed the rings and turned the little cakes over to finish cooking. As I understand crumpets, the bubbles are supposed to break and leave tiny holes all over the surface (for the butter you put on them to melt into), but mine didn’t. They came out looking like anemic English muffins.

Tom and I tried them for breakfast. Despite all the yeast, they were quite flat – both physically and palatally. Like tasteless pancakes, bland and boring. Butter and jam did nothing for them. Toasting didn’t help either. We each ate part of one and dumped the rest. Was it me? Do you have to be British to appreciate these? Do you have to have grown up with them? Was it a bad recipe? Was the griddle too hot? I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll try again. I’ll just stick to store-bought Thomas’s English muffins.


Praise for a Pound Cake

Next comes “the Good.” I had some sour cream in the refrigerator that it was time to use up. I was thinking about putting it in muffins, but when I browsed among my cookbooks for things to do with it I found a Sour Cream Pound Cake recipe in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts.

I usually make pound cake from Joy of Cooking or from an old handwritten recipe of my mother’s. Those call for sweet milk and baking powder, while Bailey’s calls for sour cream and baking soda. His also separates the eggs and folds in the stiffly beaten whites at the end. In other respects it’s a typical pound cake: beat butter and sugar together until light, beat in egg (yolks, this time), flour, liquid (the sour cream) and vanilla; bake in a loaf pan in a moderate oven. I thought I’d give it a try.

It was really nice. A good, loose-textured crumb. Fragrant, mildly tangy, not too sweet (I cut back the sugar a bit). An especially tasty crust. Altogether a very successful pound cake, simply begging for a topping of fruit, with or without cream.

The book says the cake improves with a day of aging, so I toasted a slice for breakfast the next day. The fresh-baked fragrance came right back up, and the flavor was excellent. This is a recipe that will probably enter my repertory.


Decent Dessert Bananas

Finally, here’s the “So-So.” I’ve never understood the appeal of Ferran Adrià’s “molecular gastronomy” and never felt any compulsion to visit El Bulli or purchase any of the famous chef’s cookbooks. But a newspaper review, some time ago, of The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià included a very simple recipe of his for Bananas in Lime Syrup. No foams, no chemicals, no technology: just bananas, limes, and sugar. I clipped it out for my recipe binder.

Tom and I like good bananas, and this week the stores had them from Costa Rica, which we’re convinced have a richer flavor than other countries’ bananas. (We learned to love them from several birding expeditions to that fascinating little country, where the eco-lodges would hang whole huge bunches of bananas on the porch that guests could help themselves to.) Naturally, I bought too many and had to find ways to use them before they turned totally black.

Out came the Adrià recipe. I made a simple sugar-and-water syrup, let it cool, added the juice and grated zest of a lime, submerged two thinly sliced bananas into it, and refrigerated the bowl for a few hours.

The recipe said to serve the bananas either alone with their syrup or over ice cream. Wickedly, we chose ice cream: crema and cioccolata from L’Arte del Gelato, whose local shop is a constant temptation to overindulgence.

The bananas were nice enough. They tasted exactly like bananas in sweetened lime juice. Nothing to complain about, but nothing exciting either. The gelato, which was delicious, tolerantly accepted the companionship of the fruit. I guess I’d been hoping the molecular gastronomy genius had discovered some obscure chemical affinity of ingredients that would make the dish greater than the sum of its parts. Nope.

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In 1968, M.F.K. Fisher said “The trouble with tripe is that in my present dwelling place, a small town in Northern California, I could count on one hand the people who would eat it with me.” Regrettably, I, whose present dwelling place is a huge city in the Northeast, can say the same in 2012.

But Tom and I love tripe. So when I made my newest cookbook purchase, Jennifer McLagan’s Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, the first section I turned to was the one on tripe. And smiled to see that quotation from Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork. McLagan realizes the difficulty of persuading people to eat tripe, which must be why she dubbed this recipe Beginner’s Tripe. It has so many other tasty things in it, she hopes to distract the faint-hearted from thinking about the principal ingredient.

I well know the difficulty of that. To me, tripe’s public relations problem is that it’s not one of those exotic-sounding but mild meats like rattlesnake or alligator, of which you can tell people, “Oh, don’t worry; it really tastes just like chicken.” Tripe doesn’t taste like chicken. Tripe tastes like nothing but itself. It’s animaly. It’s pungent. It’s spongy. It’s Dionysian, not Apollonian. But those of us who like it, like it for just those reasons. Sorry, faint hearts! But – truth be told – this recipe does go a long way toward disguising those characteristics.The recipe is for a sort of stew, which starts with a thick sauce base of olive oil, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, lemon zest, chile flakes, and tomatoes. Nothing to fear there, and plenty of concealment for the tripe!

The tripe, cut into tiny strips (thanks, Tom), goes into that sauce along with some meat broth, and cooks lengthily on top of the stove until it’s tender. McLagan says to blanch it first, but tripe is sold so cleanly pre-cooked these days that I rarely bother to do that, and I didn’t this time. No problem.

Now here comes the interesting part, which is the major tripe-distracting ingredient in the recipe: chickpeas. Cooked or canned chickpeas (I used good canned ones) are drained, rinsed, dried well, and sautéed in olive oil until browned. To them are added sliced chorizo and diced red bell pepper, all of which is further sautéed until the chickpeas are crunchy, the chorizo rendered, and the pepper softened.

Once all those things are added to the tripe and sauce, heated together briefly, put in a serving dish and topped with parsley, the chickpeas take on the lead role and the terrifying tripe becomes almost undetectable to both the eye and (alas!) the palate in the busy, colorful mixture.

This is a really good dish, flavorful and lively. It wants some crusty peasant bread to sop up the sauce with, possibly a green salad alongside, and a red wine strong enough to stand up to the spicy density of the dish. It might indeed convert a tripe-timid person – though for true aficionados, there isn’t enough tripe in it. Tom wants me to double the proportion of tripe, next time we make it.

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It’s just grand when your oven goes on the fritz in the middle of a dinner party. It happened to me this week as I was making Yorkshire pudding to serve with a standing rib roast of beef. I’d never made Yorkshire pudding before and wasn’t at all certain of my recipe – it was very different from the recipe in another of my cookbooks. Also, this recipe wanted a pan 10 X 15 X 2½ inches and said the pudding would rise above the top of it. My nearest size pan to that was 9 X 13 X 2 inches, and I wondered if I’d end up with pudding all over the oven floor.

The fates had a different trick to play on me, however. The fact that the oven breakdown wasn’t a disaster is due entirely to the enterprise of my sainted husband. Let me tell the story as it developed.

Following the directions in my Cooking of the British Isles volume in the Time-Life Foods of the World series, I’d made up a crèpe-like egg-milk-flour batter in the afternoon and chilled it well. The dinner party was under way and the roast was still cooking in the upper of my two electric wall ovens when I preheated the lower oven to 400 degrees for the Yorkshire pud.

Between the appetizer (prosciutto and pears) and the first course (mushroom risotto), I sizzled rendered beef fat in a baking pan on a stove burner, poured in the pudding batter, and set the pan in the lower oven. Fifteen minutes later, as the guests were having a good time, I went to the kitchen to take out the roast to rest before carving, and turn the pudding’s oven down to 375 for another fifteen minutes.

Horrors! The batter was still completely fluid—looking just as it did when I put the pan in the oven. The oven’s display claimed that its temperature was at 400 degrees, but there was almost no heat in it. Crisis! I called Tom into the kitchen from his hostly duties at the dinner table, showed him the problem, and said What should we do?!

I admit this was not a crisis of the order of the time we forgot to turn on the oven with the suckling pig in it (that’s a story for another day), but it was still serious enough to warrant a family conference.

Calm and practical as always (well, most of the time), he said to turn off that lower oven, set the upper oven on Broil, and put the pudding pan close up under the broiling element. I did. And went back to the dining room for some wine to soothe my spirit and brace me for the charred-on-the-top, damp-on-the-bottom, pseudo-falafel I anticipated.

We gave the roast a slightly longer rest than normal, and by then – wonder of wonders – the pudding seemed to have cooked. It looked ridiculous: It had risen in steep waves and troughs like a troubled sea, and it was nowhere near the top of its pan. But it was mostly a warm golden brown and seemed firm on the bottom, so we went with it.

It was fine. Even though not puffy, as it should have been, it was a bit like popovers: crisp outside and soft within. Plus wonderfully succulent from the beef drippings. The guests ate it with apparent pleasure, a few even having seconds. So, disaster averted and dinner party saved.

The next morning, the dratted oven appeared to be back to working normally, so I can’t even call in a serviceman to look at it because he’d find nothing wrong. This is not a great way to be entering the heavy holiday cooking season.  Stay tuned, in case there’s a next thrilling episode of the distresses of Diane!

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Is Sunday the last day of the old week or the first day of the new? I’m calling it the first, though I might do another new recipe later this week.

Today was Coquilles St. Jacques à la Fondue d’Endives, from a paperback Bistro book that sister-in-law Judy turned me onto. An attractive book that we haven’t used much, though it seems to be a bit arithmetically challenged: To serve 4, the recipe called for 12 sea scallops, which were at the end to be placed 5 to a plate. Oh well, I sometimes have troubles with my checkbook, so who am I to complain? Very nice dish, and very rich: Belgian endive sautéed in butter, scallops sautéed in butter, a sauce of lemon juice, butter (getting a theme here?) and crème fraiche. The sweetness of the scallops and the bitterness of the endive matched well, especially with all that b u t t e r.

The sauce was almost a beurre blanc, but easier to make. No shallots, no reduction of the acid ingredient. Just bring lemon juice to a boil, whisk in pieces of butter, and then add a nice dollop of crème fraiche. Also nicer than I expected was the endive treatment. This is a vegetable we rarely cook, but I can see doing it that way as accompaniment to a grilled meat, maybe – if it didn’t cost a fortune, which today’s pair of endives sort of did. It’s not being a good winter for vegetables, and the ones available are ghastly expensive. But one must eat, non?

The anniversary re-issue. My copy of the original volume fell apart from hard, loving use.

We had the dish as a main course with a rice pilaf from Julia I, after an appetizer of fried oysters on a bed of frisée, with a brilliant little tartare sauce of Tom’s creation, involving capers, cornichon, and pickled ginger, all of which we happened to have in the fridge. These très riche scallops would be better, I think, in smaller quantities as a fish course in an elaborate dinner. We drank a French Sauvignon blanc with it – one of my least favorite white wines, but good with the dish. Which, by the way, the book says is from a Parisian bistro called Chez Diane near the Jardin de Luxembourg.

A few days later: I did one more new recipe this week.  A carrot soup, originally published in a 1976 Terence Conran vegetable book, which I found in the soup volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I wanted something simple for a winter’s day, and this was certainly that. Sauté thinly sliced carrot and chopped onion in butter until soft; add stock, salt, sugar, and a bit of rice; simmer 20 minutes, then puree.

I like carrots, and I used hefty, well-grown ones, so I hoped the soup would be okay even if it didn’t come out greater than the sum of its parts. Which it didn’t – should’ve known the Brits don’t really believe in flavor!  It wasn’t bad; just lackluster. You could hardly tell it came from carrots.  Helped immensely by some extra salt (recipe called for only “a pinch” for a pound of carrots and a quart of stock) and a spoonful of crème fraiche stirred into each bowl.

It was a sketchily written recipe. When I write recipes (I’ve published more than 500), I try to anticipate what people might not think of for themselves. But this one said nothing about cooking covered or uncovered, so if anyone had tried to sauté the carrots uncovered, they’d have become shrapnel before ever softening (mine took 30 minutes covered, with a fair amount of tending). Also, the final simmering with only the amount of liquid called for and no lid on the pan would’ve thickened the puree to a paste, and burned it on the bottom, without frequent stirring. Recipe writers shouldn’t assume so much knowledgeability in readers.

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